And the team that will hoist the World Series trophy and parade down its city's streets will be ...
Who can tell? Finalists for baseball's playoffs have played six months of baseball, and all we can deduce from the end of the season's marathon is how similar the eight who remain are.
October baseball is here, and will the favorite please stand up? Is there a favorite?
It's not the two-time defending champion Yankees, who appear the most wobbly after having lost 15 of their past 18 and seven in a row by a 70-14 aggregate margin. Boss George Steinbrenner seems on the verge of lowering his indiscriminate guillotine should this swoon continue for the team with the $100 million payroll.
The most viable championship candidates reside in the National League, where three games separated the four teams. The Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets have all had a stretch where they've played like baseball's best team and a stretch where they looked like they did not belong in the postseason.
"There's not much difference between any of us," Giants outfielder Barry Bonds said. "This should be fun to watch."
Chicago and Oakland re-appear in October after long absences. The White Sox are baseball's biggest surprise, having clutched control of the American League Central in May and never relinquishing their lead. But can you name a pitcher in their rotation?
The A's needed a torrid finish, and some heroics from first baseman Jason Giambi, to reach their first postseason since 1992. Other than utility infielder Randy Velarde, though, none of the A's have playoff experience.
Seattle emerged from its trading of Ken Griffey Jr. in March to win 12 more games than a year ago -- and the American League wild card. Yet the Mariners also have young pitching.
Every team's got a glaring weakness or two. It's what makes this postseason race so unpredictable to forecast.
The Braves? They've played in eight straight league championship series and easily have the most playoff savvy.
But Chipper Jones' error during Sunday's season-ender sent the Braves packing to St. Louis. To reach their fourth World Series in six years, the Braves must do so without the Atlanta edge they've become accustomed to enjoying.
"I'm not going to be picky about whether you're playing at home or on the road," said Greg Maddux, who will start Game 1 today. "We've got a chance to go to the World Series."
And questions continue to swirl around the bullpen, though starter Kevin Millwood will be added, giving Bobby Cox the option of three hard-throwing relievers. Maddux and Tom Glavine will do their best not to bring the bullpen into play.
The Giants? San Francisco ended with baseball's best record primarily due to a second-half pitching resurgence and nasty closer Robb Nen's victories.
While Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent duel for the NL MVP, Bonds will have October deficiencies to overcome. In four playoff appearances in the '90s, Bonds has hit .200 (16-for-80) with one home run and five RBI.
The Cardinals? St. Louis will not have a healthy Mark McGwire, though it has learned to win during the second half without the leading active home run hitter. Acquiring Jim Edmonds, Fernando Vina and Will Clark has done wonders for the lineup, while the influx of Darryl Kile and Pat Hentgen has helped the rotation.
The questions surround supporting Edmonds, who has posted MVP-type numbers but will be singled out by the Braves' pitchers. Do the Cardinals, without McGwire, have enough around Edmonds to beat Maddux and Glavine?
The Mets? Mike Hampton and Al Leiter are another solid one-two starting punch, with Armando Benitez keying a deep bullpen.
The New Yorkers will need catcher Mike Piazza to play above his October past, having hit .211 with two home runs in 57 playoff at-bats.
"Any one of these teams can win because there's not one dominant team," Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez said after Sunday's game. "Everyone should feel good about their chances."
Associated Press reports were used in this article.
Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219.
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